British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Jane Harrison
A Nigerian Garden
Colonial Lagos
"Once again I'm torn in little pieces. How thankful I will be when my heart, mind and body are all in one place!" So wrote my mother, after 17 years of a marriage mostly spent apart living on different continents.

Mum was born in 1916 on a farm on Sunk Island, a remote part of Yorkshire. She grew up learning the skills she would need to be a farmer's wife but instead she married a man in the Colonial Survey Service, who spent all his working life mapping Nigeria and the Gold Coast.

In Lagos she had a dramatically different lifestyle. They were in a city! They had electricity! They had servants! They socialised at The Club, where on special occasions she wore glamorous evening gowns. (A lot more glamorous than The Club, probably. It would have been a scruffy, dusty place.)

It was in The Club that my parents heard Chamberlain's announcement on the radio declaring war on Germany. Shortly after that, they came home to England on leave, Mum now expecting their first child. In July 1940 Dad returned to West Africa, the White Man's Grave - far too unhealthy for English babies. Mum remained in East Yorkshire. And so began long years of marriage conducted by post.

During the war there was no airmail, and letters sent by sea took weeks, if they arrived at all. On May 6th 1941 Mum wrote "At last a letter arrived, dated 24th Feb... It isn't news I want so much as just something from you. What matter if the censor reads [our letters]. It can't help the Germans and it does help me!" It was not all loneliness. In December that year she reports on the Home Guard Dance: "I had a gin and lime, then somebody bought me a whisky, and I'm sure Harry thought that with one more I'd be laid out. Fortunately the bar closed...!"

Dad kept almost all of the letters she wrote to him - those that survived the U-boats, that is. When Mum died in 2015 the collection came to me. There were more than 1200 pages, written over the 17 years before Dad retired. They tell of the strange life Colonial Service families were expected to lead. A world where email and Skype were not even in science fiction, where phones were rare and air travel rarer, and wives and children had to put up with circumstances that would appal psychologists nowadays. Few of Dad's letters survived, not least because of my brothers' stamp collecting enthusiasms, but a few from 1955-57 tell something about life in Accra as the Gold Coast moved to independence.

Mum's letters are also a record of domestic life during and after the war. Written at that time of real austerity - bombs, rationing, power cuts, they tell the story of any British family at the time. I felt they were well worth editing into a book to preserve something of that world.

British Colony Map
1961 Map of Lagos Region
Colony Profiles
Gold Coast
Book Availability
Letters from a Long Distance Marriage
Jane Harrison
41 Raleigh Road
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 112: October 2016


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe